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The Fate of Fausto: Oliver Jeffers’s Lovely Painted Fable About the Absurdity of Greed and the Existential Triumph of Enoughness, Inspired by Vonnegut

A soulful meditation on the eternal battle between the human animal and its ego, played out on the primordial arena of elemental truth.

The Fate of Fausto: Oliver Jeffers’s Lovely Painted Fable About the Absurdity of Greed and the Existential Triumph of Enoughness, Inspired by Vonnegut

In his short and lovely poem penned at the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut located the wellspring of happiness in a source so simple yet so countercultural in capitalist society: “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

A generation later, artist and author Oliver Jeffers — one of the most beloved and thoughtful storytellers of our time — picks up the message with uncommon simplicity of expression and profundity of sentiment in The Fate of Fausto (public library) — a “painted fable,” in that classic sense of moral admonition conveyed on the wings of enchantment, about how very little we and all of our striving matter in the grand scheme of time and being, and therefore how very much it matters to live with kindness, with generosity, in openhearted consanguinity with everything else that shares our cosmic blink of existence.

Inspired by Vonnegut’s poem, which appears on the final page of the book, the story follows a greedy suited man named Fausto, who decides he wants to own the whole world — from the littlest flower to the vastest ocean.

Building on Jeffers’s earlier illustrated meditation on the absurdity of ownership, the story is evocative of The Little Prince (which I continue to consider one of the greatest works of philosophy) and its archetypal characters, through whom Saint-Exupéry conveys his soulful existential admonition — the king who tries to make the Sun his subject; the businessman who, blind to the beauty of the stars, is busy tallying them in order to own them.

Perhaps Jeffers is paying deliberate homage to the beloved classic — the first two objects of Fausto’s hunger for ownership are a flower and a sheep.

One by one, he demands the surrender of sovereignty from all that he comes upon. The flower, being delicate and choiceless, assents to being owned by Fausto. The sheep, being sheepish, puts up no objection. Threatened, the tree bows down before him. (Oh how William Blake would have winced.)

When the lake questions Fausto’s self-appointed authority, he throws a tantrum to show the lake “who’s boss,” and the lake surrenders.

But when the mountain, grounded in her autonomy, refuses to move, Fausto flies into a fit of fury so menacing that even the mountain breaks down and submits to being owned.

Restless with not-enoughness, not content to own the flower and the sheep and the tree and the lake and the mountain, Fausto usurps a boat and heads for the open sea.

Alone amid the blue expanse, he bellows his claim of ownership. But the sea is silent. Fausto yells louder still, unsure quite where to aim his fury, for the sea stretches in all directions.

Finally, the sea responds, calmly questioning how Fausto can wish to own her if he doesn’t even love her. Oh but he does, he does, the riled Fausto insists. The sea, in consonance with the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm’s observation that “understanding and loving are inseparable,” tells Fausto that he couldn’t possibly love her if he doesn’t understand her.

Anxious to stake his claim, Fausto scolds the sea for being wrong, barks that he understands her deeply, then swiftly demands that she submit to his ownership or he will show her who’s boss.

“And how will you do that?” asks the sea. By making a fist and stamping his foot, Fausto replies. With her primordial wisdom, having witnessed human folly since the dawn of humanity, the sea invites Fausto to show her just how he plans to stamp his foot, so she can understand. And Fausto, “in order to show his anger and omnipotence,” perches overboard and aims his foot at the sea.

Swiftly, inevitably, the laws of physics and human hubris take hold of Fausto, who disappears into the fathomless sea — a sinking testament to Ursula K. Le Guin’s cautionary charge that unbridled anger “feeds off itself, destroying its host in the process.” (How fitting, too, that Jeffers should choose the world of water — one of his supreme fixations as an artist, subject of some of his most haunting conceptual paintings — as the arena on which this final existential battle between the human animal and its ego plays out.)

Jeffers’s subtle, powerful message emerges with the tidal force of elemental truth: When all is said and done and sunk and swallowed, there is only the realization at which Dostoyevsky arrived in his stark brush with death: that “life is a gift, life is happiness, each moment could have been an eternity of happiness,” had it been lived with a sympathetic love of the world.

The sea, Jeffers tells us, feels sorry for Fausto, but goes on being a sea, as the mountain does being a mountain.

And the lake and the forest,
the field and the tree,
the sheep and the flower,
carried on as before.

For the fate of Fausto
did not matter to them.

We are dropped safely ashore to contemplate the fundamental fact that our lives — along with all of our yearnings and fears, our most small-spirited grudges and most largehearted loves, our greatest achievements and deepest losses — will pass like the lives and loves and losses of everyone who has come before us and everyone who will come after. Temporary constellations of matter in an impartial universe of constant flux, we will come and go as living-dying testaments to Rachel Carson’s lyrical observation that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.” The measure of our lives — the worthiness or worthlessness of them — resides in the quality of being with which we inhabit the interlude.

Complement The Fate of Fausto with poet Wendell Berry on the real measure of a rich life in a consumerist culture and George Sand’s forgotten only children’s book — a touching fable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and greed, illustrated by the Russian artist Gennady Spirin — then revisit Jeffers’s wondrous illustrated fable of what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.

BP

Dostoyevsky, Just After His Death Sentence Was Repealed, on the Meaning of Life

“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task.”

Dostoyevsky, Just After His Death Sentence Was Repealed, on the Meaning of Life

“I mean to work tremendously hard,” the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) resolved in contemplating his literary future, beseeching his impoverished mother to buy him books. At the age of twenty-seven, he was arrested for belonging to a literary society that circulated books deemed dangerous by the tsarist regime. He was sentenced to death. On December 22, 1849, he was taken to a public square in Saint Petersburg, alongside a handful of other inmates, where they were to be executed as a warning to the masses. They were read their death sentence, put into their execution attire of white shirts, and allowed to kiss the cross. Ritualistic sabers were broken over their heads. Three at a time, they were stood against the stakes where the execution was to be carried out. Dostoyevsky, the sixth in line, grew acutely aware that he had only moments to live.

And then, at the last minute, a pompous announcement was made that the tsar was pardoning their lives — the whole spectacle had been orchestrated as a cruel publicity stunt to depict the despot as a benevolent ruler. The real sentence was then read: Dostoyevsky was to spend four years in a Siberian labor camp, followed by several years of compulsory military service in the tsar’s armed forces, in exile. He would be nearly forty by the time he picked up the pen again to resume his literary ambitions. But now, in the raw moments following his close escape from death, he was elated with relief, reborn into a new cherishment of life.

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov, 1871

He poured his exultation into a stunning letter to his brother Mikhail, penned hours after the staged execution and found in the first volume of the out-of-print collection of his complete correspondence, the 1988 treasure Dostoevsky Letters (public library).

A century before Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl offered his hard-won assurance that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,” Dostoyevsky writes:

Brother! I’m not despondent and I haven’t lost heart. Life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. There will be people by my side, and to be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task. I have come to recognize that. The idea has entered my flesh and blood… The head that created, lived the higher life of art, that recognized and grew accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head has already been cut from my shoulders… But there remain in me a heart and the same flesh and blood that can also love, and suffer, and pity, and remember, and that’s life, too!

Art by Shaun Tan from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

Still, even through this elation, the animating force of his being — his identity as a writer — grounds him into a depth of despair. “Can it be that I’ll never take pen in hand?” he asks in sullen anticipation of the next four years at the labor camp. “If I won’t be able to write, I’ll perish. Better fifteen years of imprisonment and a pen in hand!” But he quickly recovers his electric gratitude for the mere fact of being alive and, reassuring his brother not to grieve for him, continues:

I haven’t lost heart, remember that hope has not abandoned me… After all I was at death’s door today, I lived with that thought for three-quarters of an hour, I faced the last moment, and now I’m alive again!

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a beautiful testament to the elemental fact that when all the static of our self-righteousness dies down, what remains between good people is only love, he writes:

If anyone remembers me with malice, and if I quarreled with anyone, if I made a bad impression on anyone — tell them to forget about that if you manage to see them. There is no bile or spite in my soul, I would like to so love and embrace at least someone out of the past at this moment.

[…]

When I look back at the past and think how much time was spent in vain, how much of it was lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in the inability to live; how I failed to value it, how many times I sinned against my heart and spirit — then my heart contracts in pain. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each moment could have been an eternity of happiness. Si jeunesse savait! [If youth knew!]

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being.

Half a century before Oscar Wilde penned his extraordinary letter about suffering as a force of transformation and transcendence from prison, where he was interned for having loved whom he loved, Dostoyevsky adds:

Now, changing my life, I’m being regenerated into a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I won’t lose hope and will preserve my heart and spirit in purity. I’ll be reborn for the better. That’s my entire hope, my entire consolation.

Life in the casemate has already sufficiently killed off in me the needs of the flesh that were not completely pure; before that I took little care of myself. Now deprivations no longer bother me in the slightest, and therefore don’t be afraid that material hardship will kill me.

Having spent years in material privation myself — though never, mercifully, nearly to the extent Dostoyevsky endured — and being always grateful for how those times annealed me, how they made me less afraid of poverty and hardship, more willing to take risks others might not, to take less materially secure paths in life (one resulting in the birth of Brain Pickings), I can’t help but wonder how much this harrowing experience fomented Dostoyevsky’s extraordinary perseverance as an artist against the tides of convention and the constant specter of poverty. It certainly reverberates throughout Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and especially The Brothers Karamazov; it certainly informed his ideas about the meaning of life, set forth decades later in the guise of a dream, and inspired his insistence upon the existential duty of seeing the goodness in people “despite the abundance of all sorts of wretches.”

Complement with a young neurosurgeon on the meaning of life as he faces his death and Walt Whitman on what makes life worth living, then revisit Anna — the love of Dostoyevsky’s life, who saved him from poverty and debtor’s prison — on the secret to a happy marriage.

BP

The Shortest Day: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence with the Passage of Time, Our Ancient Relationship with the Sun, and the Cycles of Life

A lovely homage to a universal human impulse radiating across time and space and cultures and civilizations.

The Shortest Day: A Lyrical Illustrated Invitation to Presence with the Passage of Time, Our Ancient Relationship with the Sun, and the Cycles of Life

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timely exhortation for presence over productivity. It may be an elemental feature of our condition that the more scarce something is, the more precious it becomes. Just as the shortness of life calls, in that Seneca way, for filling each year with breadths of experience, so the shortness of the day calls for the fulness of each hour, each moment. No day concentrates and consecrates its elementary particles of time more powerfully than the shortest day of the year. With our awareness pointed to its brevity by ancient rites and modern calendars alike, as we “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” something rapturous happens — a kind of portal into heightened presence opens up as every minute ticks with a supra-consciousness of its passage, pulsates with an extra fulness of being, while at the same time attuning us to the cyclical seasonality of time, reminding us of the cycles of life and death.

That is what writer Susan Cooper and artist Carson Ellis celebrate in The Shortest Day (public library) — an illustrated resurrection of Cooper’s 1974 poem by the same title, originally composed for John Langstaff’s beloved Christmas Revel shows, which fuse medieval and modern music in grassroots theatrical productions across local communities.

Cooper’s buoyant verses and Ellis’s soulful, mirthful illustrations bring to life, across time and space and cultures and civilizations, the ardor with which our ancestors have welcomed the winter solstice since long before the astronomer Johannes Kepler coined the word orbit in an era when few dared believe that the Earth spins on its axis while revolving around the Sun. (It is a function of the tilt of Earth’s axis and the elliptical shape of its orbit — another radical contribution of Kepler’s, who debunked the millennia-old dogma of perfect circular motion — that when our planet’s axial tilt leans one pole as far away as it would go from our star, we are granted the shortest possible day and the longest possible night of the year.)

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.

In an afterword reflecting on the universal human impulse to celebrate light — its departure and its return — Cooper writes:

If you live on a planet that circles a sun, your time is governed by the patters of light and darkness, summer and winter, warmth and cold. And, of course, life and death. Once our forebears learned to farm, they planted and harvested at the equinoxes, but it was the solstices that caught their attention. The extremes. They watched their days shrink from the bright abundance of high summer to the bleak, dark cold of winter, and they invented rituals to make sure the light would come back again: to bring the new day, the new year, the rebirth of life.

The rebirth rituals have become traditions we still celebrate, whether or not we remember where they came from. Some of them are so old that only their monuments remain. On the morning of the winter solstice at the great earthwork Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland, the day’s first beam of sunlight shines in through a passage that Neolithic people built there five thousand years ago to catch it, and for seventeen minutes, a dark room deep within is filled with the sunshine of the shortest day.

Complement The Shortest Day with the great nature writer Henry Beston on solstice, seasonality, and the human spirit and poet Jane Hirshfield’s lovely ode to the leap day, then revisit Ellis’s lyrical illustrated meditations on the cycle of life and the many meanings of home.

Poem text © Susan Cooper; illustrations © Carson Ellis, courtesy of Candlewick Press; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

The Book of Delights: Poet and Gardener Ross Gay’s Yearlong Experiment in Willful Gladness

“The more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.”

The Book of Delights: Poet and Gardener Ross Gay’s Yearlong Experiment in Willful Gladness

“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poet Ross Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”

Ross Gay in his beloved community garden

Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.

Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.

Photograph by Maria Popova

He writes:

Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.

In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:

It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.

He writes:

When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:

For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.

One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:

I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Perhaps the most charming category of delights Gay encounters throughout the year are what he terms “unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers.” One September day, wandering through a small town in Indiana where he had just given a poetry reading at the local college and where “Make America Great Again” signs glare from an auto-shop selling foreign cars, he records this:

While I was working, headphones on, swaying to the new De La Soul record (delight, which deserves its own entry), I noticed a white girl — she looked fifteen, but could’ve been, I suppose, a college student — standing next to me with her hand raised. I looked up, confused, pulled my headphones back, and she said, like a coach or something, “Working on your paper?! Good job to you! High five!” And you better believe I high-fived that child in her preripped Def Leppard shirt and her itty-bitty Doc Martens. For I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.

A few months ago, walking down the street in Umbertide, in Italy, a trash truck pulled up beside me and the guy in the passenger’s seat yelled something I didn’t understand. I said, “Como,” the Spanish word for “come again,” which is a ridiculous thing to say because even if he had come again I wouldn’t have understood him. He knew this, and hopping out of the truck to dump in a couple cans, he flexed his muscles, pointed at me, and smacked my biceps hard. Twice! I loved him! Or when a waitress puts her hand on my shoulder. (Forget it if she calls me honey. Baby even better.) Or someone scooting by puts their hand on my back. The handshake. The hug. I love them both.

Art by Simona Ciraolo from Hug Me

And then there are his parenthetical meta-delights — parentheses applied, in proper Lewis Thomas fashion, as containers of delight, wherein the container itself is delightful. For instance, this:

(A delight that we can heal our loved ones, even the dead ones.) Oh broken. Oh beautiful.

Or this, nestled into his Indiana-small-town experience:

(A feature of the small-town Midwest: a city-hallish building in the center, always with some sad statue trumpeting one war or another. This one had a guy in one of those not-very-protective-looking hats they called a helmet during WWI. He’s carrying, naturally, a gun. Jena Osman’s book Public Figures alerted me to the ubiquity of the gun, the weapon, in the hands of our statues. A delight I wish to now imagine and even impose, given that beneficent dictatorship [of one’s own life, anyway] is a delight, all new statues must have in their hands flowers or shovels or babies or seedlings or chinchillas — we could go on like this for a while. But never again — never ever — guns. I decree it, and also decree the removal of the already extant guns. Let the emptiness our war heroes carry be the metaphor for a while.)

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

This transmutation of terror into transcendence haunts the book as a guiding spirit. In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:

I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.

[…]

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.

[…]

It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Complement the infinitely delightful Book of Delights with poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s lovely picture-book about happiness as a daily practice of noticing and Michael McCarthy’s meditation on nature and the serious work of joy, then revisit Bill T. Jones’s spellbinding Universe in Verse performance of one of Ross Gay’s poems.

BP

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